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Interview: Stanley Kay (Part 1)

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Stanley Kay, Buddy Rich's drummer in the late 1940s, died on Monday (June 21st) in New York after a long illness. He was 86. To the uninitiated, my description of Stanley's occupation in the first sentence may sound odd. Buddy Rich's drummer? Buddy Rich was a drummer. Except that Stanley played drums when Buddy Rich sang and danced, which was often in the late 1940s. Stanley was one of Rich's most trusted associates during this period. Rich had grown up and performed with Stanley's sister when they both were child stage stars. [Photo of Stanley Kay in Buddy Rich's band in the late 1940s, courtesy of The Note]

To have known Stanley was to have known a piece of Old New York. Just the sound of Stanley's voice transported you back to a time when cabs in Manhattan had metal flags on their meters, automats served oval plates of hot dogs and beans, and the jazz culture was reflected in everything, from the cut of a suit's lapels to the fuzzy glow of winking neon signs. Stanley was a big band drummer of the first order, but he also was a Runyonesque publicist who knew how to win over the most jaded writers and reporters.

When I interviewed Stanley in January 2008, Stanley spoke candidly of Rich, Frank Sinatra and other jazz artists from the 1940s. But after our conversation, Stanley called and asked if I would hold the post. “I don't feel completely comfortable with everything I told you," Stanley said. “You can use it. I'd just prefer that you wait, if you know what I mean."

In Part 1 of my two-part conversation with Stanley, the big band drummer and Buddy Rich confident talks about growing up in New York, recommending Rich to Artie Shaw, and Rich's early relationship with Frank Sinatra:

JazzWax: Where in New York were you born?
Stanley Kay: On the Lower East Side, in March 1924. Back then, everyone in the neighborhood was poor but everyone loved each other. The streets were tough and there were plenty of gangsters around--Meyer Lansky, Bugsy Siegel and others. I minded my own business as a kid, but what I saw and learned was the importance of respect. The tough guys were nice to average people on the street, tipping their hats to women. Being respected and respectful was very important--a lesson that stayed with me.

JW: Do you have brothers and sisters?
SK: An older sister, Sybil. She was a child star when she was 6 years old. She could sing, dance, act--like Judy Garland. In fact, Judy Garland's accompanist originally was her accompanist and wanted Sybil to go out to California. But she didn't. By the time my sister was 12, she was playing the Riviera and Capitol Theaters in New York. [Sybil survives Stanley]

JW: Did you see your sister perform?
SK: When I was 6 years old, my parents started taking me to see her. The orchestra was always in the pit then. For some reason I would look down at the drummer and get fascinated by what he was doing. When I'd get home I'd try to emulate what he did with forks and knives on pots and pans.

JW: Were you listening to music?
SK: All the time. I started listening to the radio and records, constantly drumming on stuff. When that was too loud I'd beat my hands on pillows. I was obsessed with drumming, and I loved drummers. I was self-taught, although later, when I was 13, I took lessons for about a year and could read music.

JW: Who was your favorite?
SK: At first I was crazy about Gene Krupa. For me, he was the best when I was a kid. But one day, in 1938, when I was 14 years old, Sybil told me there was a better drummer than Krupa--a guy named Buddy Rich. She said I should go see him for myself.

JW: How did your sister know Rich?
SK: She had known Buddy since they were 6 years old. Buddy grew up in the Sheepshead Bay section of Brooklyn, and Buddy and my sister had performed together as child stars in revues.

JW: When you first went to see Rich, who was he playing with?
SK: Buddy was playing in a Dixieland band with clarinetist Joe Marsala at the Hickory House on 52d Street. My sister told Buddy I'd be coming by. Each Sunday the club had jam sessions in the afternoon. The stage was inside a big round bar, with the bartenders working around the rim. When I got to the Hickory House that Sunday afternoon, I introduced myself to Buddy. He knew I was coming. He was very nice to me.

JW: How so?
SK: He got me a place to sit, and I had a Coke. All the guys who played in bands then--Eddie Mallory, Tiny Bradshaw and others--would sit in and jam. The jam session that day lasted from 3 to 6 p.m. As the session was winding down, Buddy still hadn't played. I was disappointed. But at about 5:50, Buddy climbed up and played Jim-Jam Stomp.

JW: How did he sound?
SK: Like jet planes taking off. It was that fast. I said to myself that Sybil was right. The guy was better than Gene. I idolized Buddy after that.

JW: You read all of the music fan magazines?
SK: Absolutely. And the music trade publications. When Buddy joined Bunny Berigan in the late summer of 1938, I went to see him. When he left Bunny in fall, I read in one of the trades that Artie Shaw was looking for a drummer because Cliff Leeman was leaving.

JW: Did you get word to Shaw?
SK: Better. I knew that Artie was playing at the Lincoln Hotel on 45th St. I also knew you could go upstairs where the lounge was, and when they opened the door, you could look down and hear the band play. There also was an area where you could see the musicians go into the alley on a break.

JW: What did you do?
SK: When I saw Artie come out, he was in a good mood. So I said, “Mr. Shaw, excuse me, I heard you're looking for a drummer. I know the greatest drummer in the world." “Who would that be," he asked me. “Buddy Rich," I said. “Oh, he can't play," Artie said, waving me off.

JW: How did you feel?
SK: Terrible. But it turned out Artie was putting me on. He had already hired Buddy. A week later Buddy joined Artie's band. Tenor saxophonist Georgie Auld must have gotten him into the band. For years, though, I thought I had gotten Buddy that job [laughs]. Buddy never told me what had happened and it was a longstanding joke between us.

JW: What was next for Rich?
SK: In late 1939, Tommy Dorsey called Buddy and asked him to join his band. Buddy was in Chicago at the time playing with Artie. Buddy initially told Tommy he wasn't interested. He knew Tommy often featured his Clambake Seven, a Dixieland group. Buddy wasn't interested in that type of music and told Tommy that.

JW: What changed Rich's mind?
SK: Tommy told Buddy he had just brought in Sy Oliver to arrange. Right off the bat Buddy said to count him in. He joined Tommy in late 1939.

JW: Did you see Rich with Dorsey's band?
SK: Every chance I'd get. Tommy's sound on the trombone was absolutely exquisite. We forget that today. Back then, most trombonists warmed up with scales. Not Tommy. He could come into the Paramount Theater with a hangover, pick up the trombone and play like glass.

JW: Rich and Frank Sinatra, Dorsey's vocalist from 1940 to 1942, had their differences, didn't they?
SK: There's been much talk about how Buddy and Frank didn't get along when they were both in Tommy's band. They had their moments, but talent-wise they loved each other.

JW: How did their differences start?
SK: Buddy told me the friction started when they roomed together in 1940. Frank used to get up at 2 a.m. and clip his toenails. The clicking sound would wake Buddy up, and they'd have a terrible row.

JW: There was a moment with a pitcher, yes?
SK: The famous pitcher-throwing incident happened in the ballroom atop the Astor Hotel in Times Square. When Buddy got moody, he could play louder than 20 field drummers. Frank had a fast temper. Both of them could go a little berserk over stuff most people would view as nothing. Ultimately, they were very, very sensitive geniuses. [Photo: Frank Sinatra, Buddy Rich and Tommy Dorsey in the early 1940s]

JW: So what happened?
SK: At the Astor, Buddy was in one of his moods and playing too loud while Frank was singing. They had words after the song. Then Frank grabbed a glass pitcher and threw it at Buddy. So they both stepped outside the ballroom. When Buddy came back he had a black eye.

JW: No hard feelings?
SK: Their battles had nothing to do with what they thought about each other. In 1946, when Buddy came out of the Marines, I was in Toots Shor's bar with Frank and Buddy. I heard Frank tell Buddy, “Start a band. I'll back it, and you'll be so busy you'll be begging to get days off." So Buddy did, and Frank did what he had promised Buddy.

JW: So their scraps were just a result of creative heat?
SK: Their friction was just about art and business. They loved each other. When Buddy was ill in the last years of his life, Frank was the first guy there to settle his bills and look in on him.

JW: When did Buddy first hear you play drums?
SK: When I was 14. I was playing like a maniac along to records at my house. When my sister brought Buddy by, he told her, “He can't play. He'll never make it." I almost cried [laughing].

Tomorrow, Stanley on joining Buddy Rich's band, how Stanley could tell that when Buddy's temper would flare just by the placement of one of his feet, the day Stanley passed Buddy a pair of sweaty sticks, and having to find a new job in 1950 after Buddy broke up his band.

JazzWax clip: This may be the only surviving clip of Stanley Kay playing drums in the Buddy Rich band. It's a short for Universal made in 1948, while the band was on the West Coast...

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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